Trees usually turn colour and shed foliage as the temperature drops, but this year many species began to lose their leaves in August because of a shortage of water. However, the real autumn is now with us – a time that has inspired poets across time and cultures. Sudie Stuart Hager was Idaho Poet Laureate from 1949 up to her death in 1982. Her best-known collections were Earthbound, published in 1947, and Beauty Will Abide (1970). Her poems dealt with the rhythms of life and with the changing seasons. This is a reflection on autumn in the high deserts of Idaho.
Poets say that love in April bloom,
And petal-showered lovers feel the same;
I thought so, too, in spring but now I know
Love is the autumn leaf’s breathtaking flame.
Autumn still retains her charm
As she walks the stage;
But blood-red paint cannot, for long,
Conceal the lines of age. The Prodigal
October, reckless heir to autumn wealth,
Spends lavishly. Our dazzled eyes behold
His palace roof of sapphire, gold-leaf floors.
Rich draperies of bronze and flame. He pours
A mellowed heady wine and drinks to madness;
He showers coins with riotous autumn gladness.
Then, one bleak day, we wake to find October
Sans raiment, gold, sans everything – and sober;
His gay mood changed to deepest melancholy,
But, oh, the world is richer for his folly.
Over the summer we wandered along the old railway embankment, heading west from Outmarsh. This gave almost a mile of fine walking through scentless mayweed along an open track bordered with thistle, teasle and blackthorn, before barbed wire and then matted brambles barred the way. The rail bed provides elevated views across the village and beyond, and it was easy to imagine all this passing quickly by in a rhythmic rush, as Robert Louis Stevenson does in his From a Railway Carriage, first published in 1885 in a collection called Penny Whistles. In this, he captured the sensation and sights of train travel long before the much better known Night Mail.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches,
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and grazes;
And there is a green for stringing daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
Have you lived in Wiltshire long enough to have known the elm? There was a time when to be here was to live with elms – the dramatic lines of the English Elm in the lowland hedgerows, and the occasional stately Wych Elm in fields and woods. When we first came to Wiltshire, almost half a lifetime ago, they were beginning to die, and their skeletons can still be seen around the village: mute reminders of a greater time and a more marked-out landscape. But, although the mature trees all died, destroyed by a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle, the English Elms regenerated and saplings appeared in the hedges. Over the years, we have watched these grow, die back following further attacks, and then grow and die again, but a few minutes from where I’m writing this, near to the canal, there are three elms that have broken out of the confines of a hedge and are growing into what seem like reasonably healthy trees, one of which must be near twenty feet tall. My fingers are crossed for the future of these icons of another time, and what seems like another Wiltshire.
This is the first verse of the John Clare poem: To a Fallen Elm – that shows something of the significance that the tree had for people’s lives, although, inevitably, the poem is as much about the human condition as it is the elm.
Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was never penned …